Folklore: an Appeal to Fantasy Authors to Get it Right

Dear Fantasy Genre,

I know I haven’t spent as much time with you recently as I used to.  I’ve been hanging out with mystery more often lately, and even sometimes with those Victorian novels (they’re not all bad, you’d know that if you got out more). But fantasy, I do still care about you, and about what you’re up to. So when I read about one of the best-reviewed fantasy novels of recent years having a very simplistic understanding of my academic field, an academic field which has had a definite role in inspiring fantasy, I become concerned.

I mean, seriously, the American Folklore Society has 2,000 members and the size of the annual meeting is growing every year. There are folklorists hanging out in regional studies, English, and literature programs in Universities across the continent. The University of North Carolina’s folklore program has recommended reading for people new to the field on its site. It is not hard to figure out where to find some basic information. And if you’re teaching English at a University, especially at a University in the University of Wisconsin system, which has UW Madison in it, which is one of the places with an actual folklore program, yet you don’t think to look into any bare basics of how folklore works, you’re a  GODDAMN LAZY HACK WHO SHOU-


Fantasy, I want to help.

So I’m going to try to deal with some basic questions you may have about folklore in this post.

1. Who are the folk?

A lot of people begin with the question “what is folklore,” but I feel that isn’t actually the best place to start. An understanding of folklore comes less from knowing what it is and more from knowing who it is produced by and for.

Who are the folk?

Short answer: You.

Long answer: Anyone who is communicating. A “folk group” can be as small as two people, or as large as a nation. When the discipline started in 19th century Europe, “the folk” were considered to be those quaint, uneducated people in the country, whose tales spoke of the “true” national culture the educated elites had lost by learning French*. There is, I believe, still a popular perception that folklore is something produced by other people, by the rural hicks who don’t know better or the German peasants of olden times or those funny Arabs. That’s not true, and no one in the field has considered it true for over half a century. Every group, no matter how educated, no matter their ethnicity, produces folklore. While there are still folklorists who go out to another country or live with another group of people, collect their tales, and come back and publish them, there’s a lot more than that going on. Folklorists are increasingly studying the groups to which they belong, dissecting the functions of narratives or material practices in their own social groups.

2. What is folklore?

A word five grad students spend two class periods of three hours each debating the meaning of until they all groan when anyone says “but what is-”

Okay, that may not be the most workable definition. (It’s super accurate, though.)

There are a lot of definitions of folklore out there, and as Henry Glassie (one of the most prominent members of the field) has observed, folklorists tend to cite a whole bunch of them, possibly add their own, and then hope to god they can get away with closing the subject. The American Folklore Society claims that:

“Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example.”

My advisor tends to fall back on the definition Dan Ben-Amos put forward in his chapter of Toward New Perspectives in Folklore:

“Folklore is artistic communication in small groups.”

In his excellent book The Dynamics of Folklore, one explanation Barre Toelken** comes up with is:

“Folklore is made up of informal expressions passed around long enough to have become recurrent in form and content, but changeable in performance.”

Personally, I’m fond of just using the phrase “vernacular culture” to describe folklore, but I admit that’s rather vague.

Pictured: folklore

Folklore is the social and expressive stuff of everyday life. The in-jokes you have with your best friend are folklore. The story your uncle inevitably tells after he’s had a few drinks at Thanksgiving dinner is folklore. Your secret family recipe for a workable pie crust is folklore. And, yes, the Grimm fairy tales and ancient Greek myths are folklore. Folklore is folktales, jokes, ballads and proverbs. It’s also material culture (the way your grandmother taught you to knit, and the scarves that resulted), vernacular architecture (they way people in your part of the state raise a barn, and how that barn looks 20 years later), and foodways (the secret spices you add to your mac and cheese).

The fantasy genre gets easily hung up on folktales and songs, I imagine because of the emphasis Tolkien put on folktales and songs (and how inspired he was by them). This is a serious oversight. Sure, the great heroic ballads your fantasy people sing are going to be important to and have an impact on their culture. But you know what’s going to affect them even more every day and create tension when they travel on their epic quest? Their food. In her Circle of Magic books, Tamora Pierce actually takes care to reference different kinds of Mediterranean-style food the characters are eating or accustomed to, and when they travel they encounter new food and cultural habits around food. This does about 500 times more to give the location a sense of reality and flavor than quaint fake folk songs you made up (but skip the stew).

3. Okay, but what about folktales specifically?

Folktales are still important! And given the amount of folktales that are either drawn upon or used as plot points in fantasy fiction, fantasy authors really could stand to know some basics.

Folktales come in three general types: myth, legend, and fairy tale. These are not absolute classifications, and the boundaries between them can get very hazy very quickly, but they’re still generally useful.

Myth is that which occurs in time-before-time. A myth is concerned with why the world is the way it is, and so unfolds in a setting that is distinct from time or place as it’s currently recognized. Your creation stories, your stories about why death exists, your explanations for the seasons, they all go in myth.

…Myth isn’t my area, so that’s about all I can meaningfully contribute.

Legend occurs in historical time (that doesn’t mean definite time, just time in the sense that it’s understood and recorded through whatever means). Legend is easily the broadest of the three categories. It’s the stories about your heroic king (who may or may not have existed) who vanished and who will one day come back again to lead the nation to glory. It’s also that racist lie you overheard about China fertilizing its farms with the human waste from Hong Kong.

A key concept with legend is “truth value,” which means legend has a certain kind of credibility. Even if a legend isn’t necessarily believed by its teller or the audience, legends tend to be told as if they are true or could be true (though sometimes with an addendum along the lines of “can you believe some people think that haha I’mnottheonlyonewhothinksthisissillyright”). One of the reasons for this “truth value” is that legends tend to tap into key cultural anxieties, concerns, etc. Legends also change as those concerns change. So when people are more worried about jobs moving to Mexico, you may hear urban legends about people getting bitten by snakes hiding in products imported from Mexico, while the legend shifts to have the products come from China when people are more concerned about China’s economic growth.

What people don’t make legends about are things that are unconnected to how th


Pictured: a guy who would never have legends told about him in a world populated by human beings.

ey identify themselves or how they view (or want to view) the world to work. The connection can be positive or negative, but it has to be there. We have an urban legend about what grades Einstein received as a child in school because a lot of us aren’t sure that success on school tests really means anything. We don’t have legends about pranks Einstein pulled in college because no one cares, Rothfuss. Yes, legends do change and grow as they’re told to different people and in different contexts. All folktales do. But the changes are made with reasons behind them- because the performer thinks it makes the story better or more relevant or more likely. Oral tradition is not a game of telephone, and if you’re treating it like that (“oh it started out as this simple thing but everyone kept misunderstanding and adding ridiculous things to it haha!”), then you, frankly, are not an astute enough observer of human behavior to be qualified to write anything.

Fairy tale occurs in what is generally understood by the audience to be an alternative world, where magic is real and things like animals talking are unexceptional. That doesn’t mean a fairy tale actually has to include any magic, just that it’s framed in a way which means that we, who have heard other stories framed the same way that have had magic in them, would be unsurprised if magic did turn up. Fairy tales tend to be highly structured or formulaic, and feature generalized characters and settings. These structures and stock figures can vary wildly across cultures (as do the elements of all other kinds of folktale, but I think there’s a more prevalent false belief in “fairy tales” being universal, with “fairy tale” meaning “fairy tale as Europeans understand them”).

An extremely important and tragically under-recognized fact to be aware of with fairy tales is that for the vast majority of human history fairy tales were either general entertainment or flat-out adult entertainment. Fairy tales only became “children’s” stories when the European Romantics decided that they embodied a “pure national spirit” and would be a good way to indoctrinate children into having the proper Romantic Nationalist sensibility. So your oh so edgy retelling of a given fairy tale with death and sex and all those ~adult~ elements isn’t anything new. Some Italian woman probably did the same thing when entertaining her neighbors five centuries ago. That’s not to say there’s no value in retelling fairy tales, in any way you want- I believe strongly in the value and relevance of that. Just please don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re going where no storyteller has gone before.

Pictured: a fairy tale heroine who saves herself and her sisters. also my Arthur Rackham illustration obsession.

Relatedly, fairy tales are more than Disney. They are more than that careful selection from Grimm and Perrault and Andersen (literary fairy tales, a somewhat different creature) that you may have had as a child. Fairy tales are the entirety of the Grimm collection, or all of Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales. They aren’t just one kind of story. There are passive heroines like Sleeping Beauty, yes, but there are also heroines like Molly Whuppie. There are tales that support traditional gender roles, and tales that defy them. Regardless of the form of entertainment or art, humans have never just used it to promote one group or one aspect of culture. There will always be variety.

4. How is folklore transmitted?

It used to be that one of the defining characteristics of folklore was that it was orally transmitted. You still get folklorists who insist on orality as a criterion, but they’re definitely in the minority these days (and, frankly, they’re dying off). The key term that many folklorists, myself included, will use today is “vernacular.” Traditional “high” culture, whether that’s a symphony or a sculpture, is produced by a few specialists/elites for the consumption of other elites, and maybe some other people because hey ticket sales are ticket sales. Pop culture, from dime novels to prime-time t.v., is also produced by a group of elites, though in its case the product is mass-distributed. Folklore is neither of these things (though it definitely has relationships with both, and all feed into each other). Folklore, instead, is culture produced and distributed at the bottom (though that’s not to say that rich people don’t have folklore, they do). Instead of a commissioned sculpture, it’s the whittling a mechanic does in his free time and gives to his friends. Maybe he teaches his children how to do it too. Instead of a television show, it’s the fandom belief that the bad guys replaced that character with a doppelganger in season five, because the real character would never act like the writers currently make him behave. Maybe it gets  propagated on forums and tumblr.

You are the folk. Folklore is what you do.

5. I want to know more. Do you have recommendations?

Thank you for asking, fantasy genre! I do indeed have recommendations for further reading.

I mentioned Barre Toelken’s The Dynamics of Folklore earlier, and it’s definitely the introduction I recommend most. It introduces pretty much every aspect of the field, intelligently and with excellent examples from a number of different folk groups (and different kinds of folk group). Toelken’s aimed more at people starting graduate study, or in their later years of undergrad. For a similarly useful introduction that’s written more for students earlier in their overall study, I’d suggest Martha Sims and and Martine Stephens’ Living Folklore.

If you have the patience for academics getting…well, pretty academic, Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, edited by Burt Feintuch, is a good look at where the field more-or-less stands now, with discussion of methods, ethics, and use all bound up in the examination of key words for the field.

For anyone interested in legends, Jan Harold Brunvand’s books, most notably The Vanishing Hitchhiker, are great starting points. Yes, they deal specifically with urban legend, but that’s a great way for a contemporary reader to get a handle on how legends work (and, honestly, I believe it’s incredibly important to be aware of and able to think critically about all the urban legends you encounter).

*If you ever want to be creeped out by how 19th century folklore studies helped create the environment in which the Nazi party thrived, look into the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder. It’s enlightening in a number of terrifying ways.

**Should you ever hear a bunch of folklorists or serious folklore students throw the just name Toelken around, they’re talking about Barre Toelken, not J. R. R. Tolkien. I am saving you this confusion now.


9 thoughts on “Folklore: an Appeal to Fantasy Authors to Get it Right

  1. It’s also that racist lie you overheard about China fertilizing its farms with the human waste from Hong Kong.

    Oh! Is that not true? I thought it was common practice for most cities to do that, especially up until about the 19th century. I know there was a brisk trade in human poop in London in the 1800s, and I think the area around Paris famously smelled awful because of how all the surrounding farms were fertilized.

    UNRELATEDLY: Did you do the U Madison folkore program? Or a different one?

    • (I mean, it would be definitely pretty racist to make it out like China was the only country that did that, and that the English weren’t basically hip-deep in shit until 1880, though)

    • I don’t think it is- though I admit I didn’t research too deeply because, well, the person I overheard didn’t seem exactly credible. From what I could gather, it seems like pretty much everything from Hong Kong ends up in landfills. That’s the waste that’s processed by the government, though, and there are private groups also involved which may be using different methods.

      I have not gone to U Madison (at least, not yet). So far I’ve been involved in Ohio State and UNC’s programs.

      • Another important aspect of folklore! The careful elision of events or historical facts in order to preserve a sense of popular cultural or national identity!

        I was just asking about programs on account of how I did a couple intro classes in folklore at UMass Amherst, which I think is also one of about four places that has got a graduate folklore program.

  2. Hey, thanks for this post! This is really interesting.

    I’m curious about the definitions of legend and urban legend. I’m coming at this discussion from a slightly different angle because my academic work involved myth and not legend or folklore (my MA was in English lit., actually, but I was working on myth in fantasy novels so I did a LOT of anthropological research), so while I have read some academic work on legend and fairytales, it was mostly written by people who, at least in the context of the research I was reading, were interested in legend and fairy tales only insofar as it helped them define what they meant (and didn’t mean) by myth. So I suspect that some of the work I was reading on legend was streamlined or simplified out of necessity, and I know that not all of it was by people who are primarily folklorists.

    With that disclaimer out of the way…

    I’m curious about legend mostly because the research I did left me with the impression (it seems mistakenly!) that it was, at least in some ways, a fairly narrow category, in that it focused on the heroic-but-not-necessarily-inhuman exploits like the hypothetical king you mentioned. Before reading this post I wouldn’t have understood your other example, about fertilizing Chinese farms with human waste, as legend at all. So I guess what I’m wondering about is this: what ties the category of legend together, is there any understanding of legend in terms of scope? (If not, I’ll have to revisit some of the stuff I was reading to see whether misunderstanding came from my reading or their writing!) Is it mostly stuff that is not myth and not fairy tale, which, from your post, seem a little more narrowly defined? Or is it just that “truth value” that you mention?

    The fact that you mention “truth value” as a characteristic of legend is really interesting as well since pretty much every anthropologist I’ve encountered insists that it’s a key characteristic of myth.

    I’ve encountered Toelken’s work as well, by the way. He seems to feel the same way about defining myth as you do about defining folklore. 😉

  3. The thing about The Name of the Wind, too, is that Rothfuss really missed a huge opportunity to look at folklore in his University context. Universities are replete with weird foilklore, and it reflects a suite of anxieties that are, if not rare, at least fairly uncommon to deal with in books like this.

  4. This is a really good post, thank you for writing it.

    One niggle, though – don’t skip the stew, because it’s really good travelling food, and entirely historical. You just don’t cook it from scratch every night!

    Outfitters sold packets of “portable soup” for travellers to rehydrate and add things to, just like stock cubes.

    (Alternatively, you can just close up the pan and strap it onto the donkey, and it only gets better when you throw some more greens and another rabbit into it the next day.)

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